Tour de France 2011 – Stage 14 – Plateau de Beille

There’s nothing like being in France in July. You got the Tour on TV just about every afternoon and there’s a very good chance that you are in spitting distance of a stage or two. We’ve taken pretty good advantage of this fact since we moved here in 2008, and this year has been, happily, no exception. The nearest stage in the Pyrénées this year just happened to be one of the toughest of the Tour, with 6 categorized climbs and a mountain-top finish.

Actually learning from past mistakes, we got up before the sun and started our way down the A9 towards the mountains, reaching the bottom of the climb just before noon, or about 5 hours before the riders. Even then the road up was already closed, so we parked on the nationale and had some lunch on the road. This road closed shortly after and there was already a pretty festive atmosphere, with the ubiquitous camper-van crowd, along with their environmentally-friendly colleagues, cyclists.

After feeding ourselves we started the long hike up the road. The climb is nearly 16 km long and I wanted to get up far enough so that the peloton would be good and truly blasted by the time they reached us. This plan, too, surprisingly worked.

The Plateau de Beille is said by some to be the Pyrenean equivalent to Alpe d’Huez. After walking up a third of the way I can see why. It’s viciously steep right from the start, as I can tell you from experience now, Alpe is.

By the time we hit the slopes there were already crowds and tons of cyclists taking advantage of the closed roads to ride to the summit.

The atmosphere was great, as it always seems to be, with a real international crowd (with a heavy Spanish/Basque minority). These Spanish guys had a hard slog up the 12% ramps, but the kid seemed to be having fun.

As I said, a few Spaniards in the mix…

One of the negative aspects about watching live, for me at least, has been the information black hole you have. You are on the road with little or no idea of what’s unfolding in the race. Technology has come to the rescue (there’s a TV on the ground. Look closer)!

Even I had an app for the iPhone (that didn’t work) from the TdF and text updates from Cycling Fans (that did work), not to mention timely text messages from Karsten in the Alps. We were far from being in the dark.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave (or possibly North America) you know that the most popular French rider out there is in yellow – Go Tommy!

After 5 km and several hundred meters of positive elevation gain (we settled at 1000m) we found our spot on a wide left-hander, with plenty of view on both sides, not to mention a decently evil gradient. This is NOT a crotch shot, even though it came out that way. I was trying to get the Basque flag.

Then it was a waiting game. Fortunately, at the Tour you are never really bored. The publicity caravan, a travelling circus of near-endless kitsch, rolls through a couple hours before the riders.

As you can see, I’m thrilled.

But the family next to us was really into it. The mom especially got excited at the sight of just about every float that rode by. We even heard them guessing what stuff they were going to get beforehand – sausage was high on the wish list. Here they are trying hard to get hit by free things (mom in pink).

More caravan.

Speaking of getting hit, as I was mentioning the agressive nature of the event to Karsten by sms he asked me, jokingly I presume, if I’d been hit by a keychain or something. And this is a true story…as I was texting him that no, it was my neighbors I was referring to…I got hit by a keychain!

After the endless caravan ended there was a strange lull for an hour or so. Finally we heard the familiar sound of helicopters inching closer, then the first rider blasted past. This is Sandy Casar, in an ill-fated attack that was eaten up shortly after he passed us.

Sandy was followed by a few fellow early attackers, including French champion, Sylvain Chavanel.

But the big boys were not too far back and when they hit our turn they were lined up like the General Classification list, nearly: Andy, Contador, Evans, Fränk, Basso and Voeckler. Here is Andy and Alberto. This is right as Andy put in his first attack of the day, by the way.

And brother Fränk.It was really interesting to see the rest of the riders spread out along the route. Many, not concerned about time at all (other than making the day’s limit), were just cruising up the hill. Here are Belgian champ Gilbert and HTC’s Tony Martin, chatting it up.

And their butts (Shoko was in charge of the camera…)

Shortly after them came everybody’s fav, Fab.

And his butt.

Many different groups came by, including what I assume is The Bus, a peloton that is formed at the back, with an agreement to roll slowly uphill. Then, at the very, very back (I later heard from Rob that he made the time limit by minutes), was Cav, surrounded by 3 teammates to help him up the mountain.

After Cavendish hobbled by we started down the mountain, only to be stopped by an unexpected positive aspect of camping vans that I think I had overlooked, i.e. they have TVs! It was a bizarre 10 minutes or so, since all of us on the outside were contorted in unnatural positions so we could see the action on the TV inside, all the while whispering to ourselves so we wouldn’t disturbe the owners inside. My back still hurts from holding that angle for so long.

I have added a few tips to my ‘Watching the Tour de France‘ article of a few years ago, if you’re in the area. Mountain-top finishes are now my favorite stages to see live. Takes some logistical miracles to do it right, but you’ll be rewarded nicely if you make it.

Next up – Mr. Patterson meets Aussie Steve, Julia and The Moms.

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9 thoughts on “Tour de France 2011 – Stage 14 – Plateau de Beille

  1. I spun up the Plateau at about 10am and thought it was an easy ride. I was on the first corner. Wish I’d known you were going to be there mate!

  2. What a great report Gerry. Excellent pictures. How exciting to see the pros ride in the race of races. What was the time difference from Casar to Cav?
    One last thing. Men should never wear red cycling shorts, that is of course they don’t mind broadcasting their religion…..

    • I think, from riding behind a few hairy Latin types down here, that some men should stay away from white shorts as well. Just advertising all sorts of things that shouldn’t be out there in public.

      Good question about Cav and Casar. It was ages. I don’t know really, but it really was forever.

  3. Fantastic photos. What a great day at the Tour you guys had. I’d love to see the riders properly like that. The cyclists were a blur when they passed us, as you might have seen from my pics!

  4. Very interesting. Remarkable to me is how incredibly thin these guys are. Shockingly thin. The incomparable Phil Liggit remarked that one of the sprinters was a large man at 6′ 160 pounds and thus he couldn’t hang in the mountains. LARGE! If he was any lighter, he’d be anorexic.

    • I hear ya. They always call Hincapie ‘Big George’, which is true if you’re just talking about height, but the guy’s a total stick. He certainly wouldn’t be considered ‘big’ where I come from!

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